Home / General / The Trump Administration Continues to Prioritize Ideology over US National Interests and Security: State Department Edition

The Trump Administration Continues to Prioritize Ideology over US National Interests and Security: State Department Edition

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I’ve been working on a post detailing the ways that the Trump Administration is destroying the State Department, but it looks like I can outsource it to this Foreign Policy article by Robbie Gramer, Dan De Luce, and Colum Lynch. A sample:

More than six months into the Trump presidency, career diplomats worry that the administration’s assault on the State Department will cause lasting damage to the workforce.

Tillerson’s controlling front office — and its focus on squeezing the budget — threatens to slow the hiring and assignment of new foreign service officers to positions around the world. All the while, numerous top career officials with decades of experience have quit, leaving a vacuum of talent and institutional knowledge in their wake.

While the State Department hemorrhages its own talent, it has also cut itself off from new talent by ending several distinguished fellowship programs to recruit top university graduates during its redesign.

The cumulative effect of a marginalized State Department, coupled with a freeze on hiring and budget pressures, could mean the next generation of diplomats will wither on the vine, current and former officials warn.

In a May 5 speech celebrating foreign affairs day at the State Department, William Burns, who retired in 2014 after a long diplomatic career that included a stint as ambassador to Russia, sounded the alarm bells.

Without mentioning the Trump administration, Burns warned against “pernicious” attempts to question the loyalty of career diplomats “because they worked in the previous administration,” as well a dismissive attitude to the role of diplomacy. Political and economic openness and a “sense of possibility” enabled America’s success abroad, but that is now threatened by a “nasty brew of mercantilism, unilateralism, and unreconstructed nationalism,” Burns said.

“Morale has never been lower,” said Tom Countryman, who retired in January after a diplomatic career serving under six presidents.

In the past, politically charged issues, such as the U.S. invasion of Iraq, created moral dilemmas for some diplomats, he said, but this is a problem of a different magnitude.

Countryman said he has been approached for advice by younger members of the diplomatic corps, many of whom are deeply disheartened. “My advice was to do your best to stay and serve the American people until it becomes truly unbearable for you in a moral sense,” he said. “I sought to encourage them by reminding them that no administration lasts forever.”

Tillerson himself appears to be exasperated by the job, caught between ideologues in the White House, competing congressional interests, and shell shock after jumping from the private sector, where he ran the U.S. oil giant ExxonMobil as a powerful executive in a highly centralized organization.

“He doesn’t have the same authority as a CEO,” one Trump insider told FP. “I know the White House isn’t happy with him and he isn’t liking the job.”

It’s worth stressing the advantages generated by an extensive and skilled diplomatic corp. Our diplomats are the lifeblood of extensive international networks that the United States uses to mobilize international support for its foreign-policy goals. In recent history, declining great powers have been able to hold onto outsized leverage via, in part, the accumulated institutional knowledge, skills, and connections of their diplomatic service. In conjunction with the State Department’s successful recruitment of a diverse, dynamic talent pool, the US looked in very good shape. Now the Trump Administration seems intent on shredding one of the most cost-effective foreign-policy instruments that the country enjoy—likely out of ideological animus toward the imagined machinations of globalism.

This particular act of geopolitical suicide comes along with signals that the administration intends to shutter functions that promote core American values. The war crimes office may be on the chopping block. Today, news comes that the administration is considering “scrubbing democracy promotion” from the State Department’s mission.

I know that, among many on the left, the reaction is likely to be eye-rolling—accompanied by mentions of Washington’s long history of support for coups, human-rights abusers, and autocratic leaders. All of this is true. But the United States has also played the role of “white knight,” supporting democratization movements in many countries across the globe. As Zacchary Ritter, one of my students at Georgetown, shows in his PhD thesis (huge PDF), the success or failure of these movements often depends on the United States putting its thumb on the scale in their favor. Of course, the United States can still do that even without the official mission. To its credit, the Trump Administration is taking at least some action in response to Venezuela’s slide into outright authoritarianism.

Overall, though, scrubbing the mission will be a major step backward, and not just as a signal about US priorities. The State Department primarily supports these goals through nonviolent means: naming and shaming, support for civil-society building, and the like. The infrastructure that supports the mission also ensures democracy remains on policy makers’ radar screens; when they overrule democracy and human-rights concerns, they have to proactively do so. Absent all of this, the international system is likely to be uglier and more authoritarian.

Indeed, the evisceration of the State Department is part of a larger story in which the worst elements of the Trump Administration are slowly winning in their battle to destroy competent, effective governance when it conflicts with their ideological priors. Peter Beinart on the resignation of George Selim:

George Selim, the federal counterterrorism official who works most closely with the organized American Muslim community, tendered his resignation on Friday. His ouster is a victory for Trump officials like Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka, who see mainstream Muslim organizations as Islamist fronts, and for those American Muslims who oppose any counterterrorism cooperation with Washington. “There were clearly political appointees in this administration who didn’t see the value of community partnerships with American Muslims,” Selim told me. It is the clearest sign yet that government cooperation with Muslim communities, which has proved crucial to preventing terrorist attacks, is breaking down.

it turns out that the administration can do enormous damage to American domestic and international security without passing a single piece of legislation. Sometimes incompetence doesn’t get in the way of ideology: it just makes things worse.

Image by Loren (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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  • guthrie

    Why does this sound similar to the May government approach to Brexit?

    • Murc

      I’ve heard that a couple days ago she doubled down on saying that Brexit would be the hardest of possible hard Brexits: she just baldly stated that freedom of movement for EU nationals will end next year.

      That’s going to be a dealbreaker for the EU. They’ll not allow the UK to have a deal that is “Norway, but no wogs.” Assuming she holds to the position the UK is going to have its entire international trade and travel infrastructure torpedoed in under a year.

      • guthrie

        Yup. But we’re all still confused about the no free movement statement, it seems to have emanaated from number 10 somehow butnobody understands why she would be so stupid as to say it at this stage, when the negotiations are still under way.

        • Murc

          Could be internal party politics. She might be feeling vulnerable from the right.

          • guthrie

            Except it’s such a huge thing that throwing stuff out to please the even more right doesn’t make sense. Unless she’s stupid of course. Moreover, the City and others have been trying desperately to make clear to the government for months now that hard bexit with no movement is a bad idea, and doing this now would be the same as telling them to fuck off. At which point half our financial services move to Frankfurt and the government loses half it’s tax intake.

  • mongolia

    I know that, among many on the left, the reaction is likely to be eye-rolling—accompanied by mentions of Washington’s long history of support for coups, human-rights abusers, and autocratic leaders. All of this is true. But the United States has also played the role of “white knight,” supporting democratization movements in many countries across the globe.

    this does seem to be occurring on parts of the left, which in my view is a shame because it seems likely to me that a stronger and more empowered state department would likely lead to less wars, and autocrat-support than a weakened state department. i’d be curious to see if there has been work done on administrations relationships with their respective state departments, and about how decisions of military action were effected by this, since it would make sense to me that having more trusted diplomats would allow an administration to better understand the motivations of potential adversaries, and thus prevent minor disputes from escalating into conflicts

  • Anna in PDX

    This was beyond depressing. I joined the foreign service right out of college in the early 90s and served for five years (in USIA which was at the time a separate agency but is now part of the State Department). I left in 98 due to personal reasons but after Bush was elected and caused many resignations with his war in Iraq I felt like I had been prescient. I guess there will be a new raft of resignations, now. I am so sad for diplomacy and for the career State Department staff who work so hard at it.

  • Murc

    I’d like to quibble with your headline, Dan. It implies that the US has national interests that aren’t ideological in nature. This isn’t really true.

    Rather, it is the case that Trump’s ideology, such as it is, is just… bad.

    • Rob in CT

      I dunno Murc. I think it’s in the national interest of the USA to have shipping be safe from piracy (whether this means the US Navy does the heavy lifting or not), even if we went way left (or, gulp, right).

      It’s in our national interest to avoid catastrophic climate change, even though ideology fucks up our policies in that regard.

      I think I could come up with more, but my 4 year old wants to kick me off the computer. ;)

      • Murc

        Those are all ideological positions, tho. Or rather, your determination that those things are in the national interest are driven by your own ideology and ideological priors.

        • Hogan

          So there’s no such thing as an interest? It’s ideology all the way down?

          • Murc

            Well, determining what is and isn’t in the national interest requires making a judgment call. That judgment call is going to be heavily determined by things like your morals, values, ethics, and what you think is the best way to advance or adhere to those things.

            That sounds pretty ideological to me. This is neither a good thing nor a bad thing. It is simple a thing.

          • ForkyMcSpoon

            You say you have an interest in not drinking lead-contaminated water, but that’s an ideological position. How can the question of whether lead poisoning is good be detached from ideology?

            (I’m just poking fun. I agree that ideology permeates most things, but still…)

        • Joe Paulson

          OTOH, “Prioritize Ideology over US National Interests and Security: State Department Edition” need not be thought of as saying “ideology” is pejorative. There is good and bad ideology. And, you can put it over “interests and security,” such as doing things to drive away careerists because your specific ideology is deemed most important to you.

    • wjts

      I don’t think that man’s mishmash of greed, prejudices, and things he heard on Fox five minutes ago are sufficiently coherent to warrant the term “ideology”. In the (reversed) sense of distinction between astronomy and astrology, I propose “ideonomy” as an alternative.

      • John F

        I don’t know, he pretty clearly has a soft spot for authoritarian thugs- of many stripes: Putin, Erdogan, Duterte, the Saudi Royals… That’s kind of an ideology.

    • dnexon

      That’s ok. I suck at writing headlines. But, as per below, it’s not about “ideology” as a thing that’s antithetical to interests or values or whatever. It’s about rigid ideological priors that produce self-defeating policies (make terrorism more likely, etc.).

      • Murc

        That’s fair.

        I… full disclosure, I have a giant bug up my ass about the uses and misuses of the word ideology. That’s my problem, tho, not yours.

        • i dunno. I think I’m generally on your side. So more of just a bad headline that was trying to flip Tillerson’s “we don’t do values, we do interests” against the Trumpsters. The result is incoherent, and you’re right to call it out.

  • “All of this is true. But the United States has also played the
    role of “white knight,” supporting democratization movements in many
    countries across the globe. As Zacchary Ritter, one of my students at
    Georgetown, shows in his PhD thesis (huge PDF), the success or failure of these movements often depends on the United States putting its thumb on the scale in their favor.”

    AKA meddling in the internal affairs of other countries and promoting regime change. This is supposed to be okay because we are on the side of good, but they are evil. That is very difficult to justify and in fact almost always hypocritical. Sorry, I don’t buy it D. If it’s okay for the U.S. to do to other countries, it’s okay for Vladimir Putin to do to us.

    • Murc

      Er, no. Motivations matter, as do goals, as do methods.

      Whether and when it is okay for nation-states to meddle in the affairs of other nation-states is not a simple “always okay” or “always not okay” or “this thing being okay makes all these other things okay as well ” proposition. Why is Vladimir Putin meddling with us? How is he doing it? What are his goals? Those questions need to be answered in-depth before we can determine whether or not his meddling is okay or not okay.

      • dnexon

        I think this isn’t even very hard. For example:

        Not okay: overthrowing Arbenz.
        Okay: pressuring Chun Doo-hwan to democratize.

        in most of the cases that I reference, we’re talking about client states. It isn’t like when the US decides to pressure dictators to step down, it’s somehow going from “not meddling” to “meddling.”

        More broadly, doing things like publishing human-rights reports, tracking compliance with anti sex-trafficking effort, etc. provide important resources to NGOs, civil society activists, and others. None of this is “meddling” in any meaningful sense, but it’s part of the democracy-promotion mission.

        • HugeEuge

          Not hard? Cuba sending troops to Angola to support their socialist brothers under attack from domestic opponents supported by racist reactionaries from South Africa? Russian actions in Ukraine following ouster of legitimately elected government by anti-Russian forces? Venezuela right now?

          • I think there’s an argument in here, but I’m not seeing it.

            • HugeEuge

              I think it’s hard to evaluate whether meddling was/is okay, or to what extent, in the Angola case above. Was Cuba correct? Was the USA then correct to support the anti-Cuba side? What about when we supported, at least in the UN, the Khmer Rouge against the Vietnamese puppet government in Cambodia? “Not hard” is certainly not how I would describe decisions in these types of circumstances.

              • John F

                Was Cuba correct? no
                Was the USA then correct to support the anti-Cuba side? no
                What about when we supported, at least in the UN, the Khmer Rouge against the Vietnamese puppet government in Cambodia? no.

                “Not hard” is certainly not how I would describe decisions in these types of circumstances.
                In those specific circumstance I would in fact describe the correct decision as being not hard.

                The conflict in Angola was internal, along internal domestic divisions- using it as a cold war proxy battle made life in Angola far far worse- with no rational gain for any of the cold war actors- a net negative all around.

                Cambodia, usually the rule is to not support foreign installed puppet governments- but when the alternative is the Khmer Rouge I’d invoke what I’d call the Nazi exception- when a government/movement is the functional equivalents of the Nazis you do not support them under any circumstances, you do not oppose their opponents.

                • dnexon

                  This is precisely the kind of argument that I wanted to head off. It’s not at all wrong that the United States has overthrown democratic governments, illegitimately interfered in democratic processes, or intervened in ways driven entirely by Cold War theories of US national interests. That’s not in dispute. But I suggest that it’s orthogonal.

                  1. The question is whether the United States should abandon democracy promotion as a mission. A lot of what the United States does to promote democracy (I’ve listed examples) is neither malevolent nor terribly intrusive.

                  2. You could recode a lot of examples as illustrations of what happens when the United States prioritizes putative power-political interests over democracy and human rights. The United States always has, and always will, do so. But it’s materially worse if Washington ‘dumps’ this as a mission. It removes countervailing pressure; it also implies a world where the United States does not (sometimes) use influence with clients to push or encourage democratization. This mattered in the South Korea case, for example.

                  3. I still don’t see the point of invoking examples of other countries taking steps to shore up or support co-ideologues and allies. The question is whether the US should completely abandon the infrastructure of caring at all about democracy and human rights.

        • Here’s Duncan Black’s take:

          “I don’t really think anything the Trumpkins is Actually Good, but the
          idea that we promote democracy, or ever had, is something a 7th grader
          with a bit of education should laugh at. It is not what we do. It just isn’t.

          Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has ordered his department
          to redefine its mission and issue a new statement of purpose to the
          world. The draft statements under review right now are similar to the
          old mission statement, except for one thing — any mention of promoting
          democracy is being eliminated.

          The most you can say is that pretending to do something is good because
          we at least have to pretend sometimes. Maybe not pretending is
          better…”

          He’s right, and you’re wrong.

          • John F

            No he’s wrong and you’re an obvious asshole

  • Hogan

    Without mentioning the Trump administration, Burns warned against “pernicious” attempts to question the loyalty of career diplomats “because they worked in the previous administration,” as well a dismissive attitude to the role of diplomacy. Political and economic openness and a “sense of possibility” enabled America’s success abroad, but that is now threatened by a “nasty brew of mercantilism, unilateralism, and unreconstructed nationalism,” Burns said.

    Oh, I think that counts as mentioning the Trump administration.

  • D. C. Sessions

    The State Department is redundant anyway. Its former functions can better be handled by the expanded Department of War Defense.

    • Murc

      I wish we hadn’t renamed the damned thing. “Department of Defense” is a bit Orwellian. Let’s call the thing what it is.

      • CP

        Especially when you consider that the renaming took place at the precise moment when the U.S. military became a more proactive and global force than ever before, i.e. precisely when it was spreading far beyond the role of simply defending the homeland. That’s what makes it really Orwellian.

    • CP

      This is literally how they think. All government departments and bureaucracies are useless and stupid, except the ones that do Manly Heroic Things that we can film Hollywood blockbusters about and write techno-thriller novels about, namely the military and police. As far as Trump’s useful idiots are concerned, this just shows that he’s Draining The Swamp.

  • Latverian Diplomat

    So, how long before our international corporations decide “Oops, we needed a functioning State Department.” ?

    • BigHank53

      Is there a line for that on any quarterly reports? Because if there isn’t, it’s not happening.

      It’ll probably be easier to move corporate HQ to a country that still has a functioning diplomatic service.

    • Hogan

      More likely they’ll decide that if we could get rid of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, we wouldn’t need a functioning State Dept. All those problems would be solved by bribery The Free Market, blessings and peace be upon it.

      • Latverian Diplomat

        True, but having a nation state’s influence (and Navy) to fall back on can also be useful sometimes…

        • LosGatosCA

          You can put your hat back on, Farley

  • I remain convinced that this is about spiking the football on Hillary Clinton. She ran State, so dismantling it/letting it wither would really stick it to her, amirite? Also, too, the fact that she ran it proves we don’t need it.

    • (((realinterrobang)))

      Interesting take.

  • John F

    “To its credit, the Trump Administration is taking at least some action in response to Venezuela’s slide into outright authoritarianism.”

    Trump (and the Alt-R in general) probably sees nothing much wrong with Maduro, but Maduro/Chavez has been a major bug up the RWNJ’s butts for quite sometime- any comment thread on any platform that has any article on Venezuela attracts flying monkeys dropping by to impart such wisdom as “This what the Dems want for the US” “This is how socialism ALWAYS ends…”

    So he’s supposed to do something, but Dump’s heart probably isn’t in it.

  • Racer X

    You’ll pardon me if I don’t shed a tear for the State Department, I don’t think they’ve particularly covered themselves in glory lately or in even going back almost 40 years. Seriously, what have they done? We’ve been at war since 2001.

    • Perkniticky

      This seems to be a common confusion. Let me explain: the State Department does not wage war – that is the military. And the decision to wage war is made by politicians. The State Department is essentially a giant global communications wing of the US government. They don’t actually make the decisions – in fact, most of the time they complain that the politicians in Washington are not listening to them.

      • Racer X

        Thank you for the clarification. Isn’t the State Department supposed to take the lead on finding diplomatic and peaceful solutions?

        • Gromet

          Look at the Iran treaty and the Paris climate agreement. Two very big achievements. State has also managed to confine North Korea to some extent — no war, anyway. Lots of minor incidents with China over the years have not turned into bigger problems. Reopening a relationship with Cuba. You can find lots of things State has done well — including the sewing up of alliances and basing deals after 9/11. That W chose to mis-use those alliances to invade Iraq was not the diplomats’ fault.

          We are much better off with a strong State Dept than without one!

          • Perkniticky

            And, in all those examples, presidential leadership was key.

        • Perkniticky

          They can advise on all the available options, but ultimately the decisions is up to the president. That’s why I got so annoyed during the campaign when people blamed Hillary for people dying in Syria, Yemen etc. Obama set the policy.

    • Lurker

      It mithat be worthwhile to note that in those wars, the US has had the support or at least benign neutrality of most of the countries of the world. The job of the State Department is to keep it that way.

  • LosGatosCA

    Diplomacy is pacifism by wimpy means.

    Isn’t that the neocon definition?

    Also, too, if women can do the job it’s not very manly.

    And why would you talk to someone when you would really rather torture them at Gitmo?

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